There’s the hustle, there’s the flow – and then there’s the dance between the two.
Chef Kirsten Helle is an expert at this dance and knowing whether she should be full tilt, blazing trails forward… or hunkering down, saving, slowing the process, maybe even veering off the path for awhile to stock up funds, energy or whatever else is needed – until the next push, the next flow comes.
Kirsten grew up with a love of food. She was raised in Puyallup by a dad with a passion for cooking; he actually turned his garage into a meat curing haven for the neighborhood. Weekends were spent with family trolling food markets and taking excursions to Uwajimaya.
Hers is a close knit family that is loud, boisterous and loving. They also share traits of heart disease and weight gain… Food was put on the table and enjoyed, without thought to health or nutrition. By the time she hit middle school, Kirsten found herself overweight, self-conscious and shy, with growing food attachment issues.
Fast forward a few years, a short stint in college and she finds herself at 23, married, working the grave yard shift delivering the Seattle Times Newspaper in order to be with her infant daughter during the day. It’s for her daughter that she decides to start cooking, aware that she has to be more conscious of what she is feeding her baby. Here she discovers her own passion for cooking.
Dreaming of culinary school, but knowing she can’t afford it, she instead goes to the library and checks out books from the Culinary Institute of America and the Cordon Bleu. “I would self-study and act like I was in school. I would do three months of immersion at a time – three months of Italian and then move onto bread baking for three months… learning the basics like how to julienne vegetables” and with the knowledge, a growing desire to become a personal chef.
Which began the next foray into learning, business development, so that she could successfully one day launch her own business.
Two years later, Kirsten can remember the exact day – she had her lightning bolt moment and epiphany that would change the course of her future. She found herself sitting on a couch, 100 pounds overweight with high blood pressure and prediabetes. As she looked down at her 2 year old daughter playing on the ground, she realized that “I hated looking at myself, hated everything about myself at that point, internally and externally…. it killed me to think of her thinking this way of herself at 25 years old down the line.” She decided it was time to break the cycle.
Just as she learned cooking techniques and then business development, she now spent the next three years studying, while still working her night job, nutrition. Up until that point, she thought healthy meant eating a Lean Cuisine or a Slimfast, she had to learn what it was to have a healthy relationship with food, finding balance in enjoying the special moments around food and in the process losing 100 pounds that she has kept off to this day.
Then she had her second child, a son. She remembers waking up in the middle of the night when he was 5 months old and saying “the time is now”. And just like that, the hustle began. Marketing in the pre-internet days meant sending post cards, placing ads in the classifieds and on craigslist. People started noticing. She began booking parties and steady catering work.
When everything imploded. What she had hidden from everyone around her was that she was in an abusive relationship. Until one night, the police were called. To insure the safety of Kirsten and her two young kids, they were taken to a women’s domestic violence shelter. There she met a female pastor, who asked her why she was so sad and she said “I feel like I failed. I feel like I’m going to have to get a divorce now, that this is what it’s leading to. And that’s what I want, but I don’t…” and this pastor looked at her and said, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be here. You don’t have to put up with this. This is not meant for You.” And that was her second lightning bolt moment – permission that it was OK to leave. She pulled up her bootstraps, took the daring that it required to share with her family, to ask and fortunately receive their help, and she never looked back again.
Still working her catering business, she now added on a night shift at a grocery store to bring in more money. When her next big decision as an entrepreneur had to be made. Her store offered her a promotion. This promotion would require her to work days and wouldn’t allow her to keep her catering business moving forward.
She found herself alone, a single mother of an 8 and a 3 year old, while also opening her home to her 16 year old niece and her infant daughter. The choice came down to paying the bills, keeping her children safe and fed while building a strong foundation for them and herself. After much gut wrenching, she accepted the job and put her burgeoning business lovingly to the side.
It was a time to hunker down and slow the process. She still held the vision of herself as a personal chef, but now that vision was getting pushed out. She was willing to be patient for when the time would be right to come back to her passion.
For the next 3 years, with her business on pause but peace in her life, learning valuable skills in her role as an organic produce manager, she meets someone. A loving and supportive man that has her moving her family an hour north from her home, her job. With his encouragement it was time to bring the hustle.
So she did.
Though times are changing with the growth of the internet and social media. So, as she does, she starts researching and starts her own food blog. It gets noticed, and goes on to win Best Seattle food blog, garnering attention and attracting new clients as a personal chef.
Kirsten has found a niche for those with very specific food needs, allergies or intolerance’s. And she knows food – knows how important food is to not only sustaining our bodies, but also to sustaining our soul. As she’s in the hustle and the trajectory sometimes works – she is referred to a Seahawk, who recommends her to one of his teammates, and another… now she has a thriving business, both monetarily and creatively and needs to hire additional employees.
When the bug bites again. Kirsten wonders “I meet with a lot of women entrepreneurs who all say the same thing, why when things are going so well, do we have to go and stir the pot up again in order to look for the next step?” The next step for Kirsten is bottling her sauces. For years she’s been focused on bold flavors and healthy sauces to keep her clients taste buds happy. But it’s not only that she thinks her sauces taste great and wants others to try them … though they do and she does. It’s bigger and more noble than that.
Kirsten wants families to know that rather than grabbing a box of Hamburger Helper, there are other quick and healthier options out there that taste better. She wants families to reach for her jars at the end of a long day to feel good about themselves and what they are putting on the table for their family.
Kirsten is also passionate about the business development side of her business. She knows what it’s like to have the good credit, the well-planned business plan and not get the loan… When she didn’t get the money she needed for this next step? She slowed the business down and was forced to become a lot more strategic, tapping into the equity she had built up over the years.
And with every slow down, she realizes there are lessons to be learned in the alternative path, while still holding tight to her vision for the future. She has to be more cautious in her growth, knowing that a pyramid wasn’t built over night, that a strong base is what will make sure that it doesn’t topple over. One thing Kirsten has, is patience.
And she feels that she can help people. Other fledgling food entrepreneurs. She wants to tell you, that she knows it’s exciting, but slow down, there is room for us all, but you have to do it right…. you’ve got to invest in your base.
Because she knows that when it’s time to hustle, once you’ve done your homework, it’s time to trust your gut and soar.
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Learn more about Chef Kirsten and her badass sauces at https://www.mesadevida.com/
Learn more about Jessica McClure and her leadership coaching at http://jessicaburnettmcclure.com/